By Olivia Rowland
Note: I did contribute research to the Rising Panthers’ first demand, and so many of the same sources I use here are also in that document.
Over the past few years, there has been a good amount of talk about the Colleges’ relationship with Sodexo. Despite hopes that President Jacobsen would offer the impetus needed to get the Colleges to stop using Sodexo as their dining services provider and Buildings and Grounds operator, the administration has taken no action on this issue. The prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Rising Panthers’ demands only makes it more urgent that HWS commit to ending its contract with Sodexo.
Sodexo, a large, multinational company based in France, has run the Colleges’ dining services since 1986 and began managing Buildings and Grounds in 1988. However, Sodexo isn’t just a food and facilities management company—it also owns and operates private prisons around the world.
Before 2001, Sodexo was the largest investor in the Corrections Corporation of America (now called CoreCivic), the second largest private prison company in the United States, which is notorious for running dangerous, poorly managed prisons without adequate security and medical care. Though Sodexo has divested from CoreCivic due to widespread student protests, it continues to engage in the private prison industry as a provider.
Sodexo runs six prisons today, five in the United Kingdom and one in Australia. It also provides food services and facilities management to over 80 prisons in other parts of the world. The prisons that Sodexo runs in the U.K., much like those managed by CoreCivic and other private prison companies in the U.S., have a track record of treating prisoners poorly. People imprisoned in Sodexo-run prisons have been humiliated by guards, subjected to illegal strip-searches and prolonged solitary confinement, and left without necessary medical care. Sodexo treats women especially poorly—in 2013, a woman was left alone in her cell after having a miscarriage, while in 2019 a woman was made to give birth alone in her cell in one of Sodexo’s prisons, which resulted in the death of her baby.
Sodexo’s record of treating prisoners in this way is enough reason to demand that the Colleges stop supporting this company. However, Sodexo’s involvement in the private prison industry in itself is also reason to demand this—even if Sodexo treated its prisoners “well,” the fact that it makes money from the imprisonment of human beings is a serious injustice that the Colleges cannot continue to support. This is especially true given the fact that prisons have historically been used to control and profit from Black people in particular and continue to be used to do so. How can HWS claim that Black Lives Matter while supporting a company like Sodexo, which participates in and perpetuates this system?
(Answer: it can’t.)
Sodexo’s involvement in the private prison industry isn’t the only way in which it specifically harms people of color around the world, however. The company also has an extensive record of discrimination against its employees of color. In 2005, a group of Sodexo employees alleged that they were denied promotions, segregated within the company, and not allowed to organize. Sodexo settled the lawsuit for $80 million.
In the years since this lawsuit, Sodexo claims to have improved its efforts at diversity in the workplace. This does not seem to be the case at HWS, where all of Sodexo’s management is white. According to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which filed the 2005 lawsuit, employees were still filing against Sodexo for racial discrimination at least until 2010, five years after the original lawsuit. In 2007 and 2017, Sodexo settled two claims that it discriminated in hiring against Black applicants.
Sodexo was also sued in 2010 for both preventing workers from organizing and paying them poverty wages. In 2011, some Sodexo workers’ wages were so little that they qualified for federal welfare, according to a TransAfrica report.
HWS is not insulated from these issues either. A 2010 article published in the Herald raised concerns about the pay rate of Sodexo employees, as well as poor treatment from managers. Similarly, a 2018 article noted that Saga managers are often found to yell at employees. Any student who has talked to a Sodexo employee for more than a minute will hear the same concerns about poor treatment and wages. Given the fact that Sodexo as a whole has such a systemic record of treating their employees poorly, it would be stranger if Sodexo employees at HWS were treated well than if they were treated in line with other Sodexo employees around the world.
In addition to discriminating against employees, underpaying them, and preventing them from unionizing, Sodexo has a history of failing to protect their workplace safety. Since 2000, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration has conducted over 100 investigations into dangerous conditions at Sodexo facilities. In one case, a worker who complained to the OHSA was fired.
The same 2010 Herald article noted that HWS Sodexo employees also complained of unsafe working conditions. In 2019, Sodexo at HWS was fined $13,260 by OHSA for failing to take proper safety measures in operating machinery with the ability to harm employees, which is classified as a serious violation. This case is still contested; however, it is one in a line of safety violations that have occurred at HWS and that put employees in danger.
Since 2014, Saga has incurred nine critical and 22 non-critical violations during regular health inspections. Many of these violations, including unsafe facilities, dirty surfaces, and inadequate ventilation, put workers at risk. Violations involving improper food temperatures and failures of anti-contamination procedures are also a danger to members of the HWS community who eat at Saga.
Then there’s the food. Given that students are forced to pay large amounts of money for meal plans, we expect that we will be given the option of eating healthy, sustainable food that meets our various dietary needs. This is not the case with Sodexo managing our dining. Students have complained for years that the options Sodexo provides for vegan/vegetarian, Kosher, halal, and allergen-free foods are lacking, and yet we still face the same problems.
Additionally, the food provided by Sodexo is objectively unethical and unsustainable. The Herald reported in 2019 that despite Sodexo’s commitment to the Real Food Challenge, which encourages colleges to purchase sustainable and ethical foods, only 1% of Sodexo’s food purchases for the 2017-2018 academic year were locally sourced. Only 1% was sustainable, and another 1% was fair trade. None of it was humane. For the following academic year, only 2% of the food purchased by the Colleges was local, fair, humane, or ecological. Think about that: less than 2% of the food you consume in Saga met even one of those criteria.
Where your food comes from should be a concern to you not only because you have to eat it, but also because of its broader ramifications. Sodexo’s not purchasing ecologically sound food contributes to the climate crisis, which disproportionately affects people of color around the world. By not purchasing more than 1% of our food locally, the Colleges also fail to support the Geneva community. And then they say that Black Lives Matter.
Because all students are made to have a meal plan, going to HWS is synonymous with supporting Sodexo and everything that it stands for. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, when many students are under financial distress, the Colleges still require them to purchase a meal plan, which makes explicit their commitment to money over student welfare.
A petition circulated by a group of students living in Odell’s, off-campus, and in 380 South Main that called for the Colleges to end this requirement garnered over 300 signatures from students and some faculty. It noted that requiring students to pay $800 for the lowest meal plan is not fair, especially during the pandemic, when it is an extra burden many students cannot afford. Importantly, this burden also falls disproportionately on students of color.
The Colleges have made no move to address this problem. President Jacobsen has repeatedly refused to seriously discuss Sodexo during meetings when students have brought up their concerns and has said that she will not consider anything before the contract is up. As of Sept. 26, 2020, she has also not said anything about the Rising Panthers’ demands, the first of which demanded that the Colleges drop Sodexo.
It is possible that we cannot afford to get out of our contract early, given that we pay Sodexo $13 million each year. In the case that exiting the contract now is infeasible, Jacobsen needs to commit now to not renewing it when it expires.
Not doing so would be among the ultimate hypocrisies this institution commits while claiming that it is dedicated to student welfare, sustainability, and, in particular, racial justice. Apparently, to “live a life of consequence” at HWS means to act without regard to the consequences our support of Sodexo has on employees, students, imprisoned people, and the environment.
Getting rid of Sodexo is especially important given the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you trust this company to keep its employees safe, give them proper personal protective equipment, and support them when they get sick? Do you trust it to keep your food safe from contamination?
Students at other colleges have succeeded in getting their institutions to end ties with Sodexo—years of organizing got Scripps College in California to drop its contract, while Ithaca College just ended its contract a few years ago. Ithaca was able to create its own dining services facilities and provide cheaper meal plans to students with more accountability. We must make HWS do the same.